Book review: Lawrence in Arabia

Perhaps one of the most iconic figures in the 20th century, Thomas Edward Lawrence, or simply T.E. Lawrence, has captured the hearts and imagination of enamored audiences through the numerous films, books and other materials surrounding this enigmatic figure.

Despite having heard of the World War One British military officer during my travels and from various news articles, Scott Anderson’s book was my very first stab at trying to comprehend with this mythical character historically whose life is intricately intertwined with the complex process of how the modern day Middle East territorial borders were formed.

It was truly a mammoth attempt to digest “Lawrence in Arabia,” a long, dense and comprehensive book that spanned the entire lifetime of Lawrence from cradle to grave backed by extensive research. More than just a biography, it helped put into perspective many of today’s problems in the Near East, particularly poignant if you have been following the events unfurling in Syria and Iraq.

“Beginning with the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, but greatly accelerated by the so-called Arab Spring movements that have roiled the region since 2010, the established order has steadily eroded before the force of the “Arab street.” Thus far, though, that “Street” has shown little sign of coalescing around any notion of Arab unity, let alone the old dream of a greater Arab nation, but very much the opposite: a reversion to the balkanized patchwork of ethnic and religious enclaves that existed under the Ottoman millet system.”

T.E. Lawrence in Arab headdress

In tandem with T.E. Lawrence, three other characters were also prominently featured for a sense of the various powers involved with shaping the Middle East agenda, namely American William Yale, Aaron Aaronsohn, a Jewish man born in Romania and grew up in the Palestinian territories, and German Curt Prufer. The effort took to arrange and string together the various storylines into a coherent chronological timeline is impressive and commendable given the characters themselves barely crossed paths with each other during that period of upheaval.

Another point that marveled me was how some of Lawrence’s comments were eerily prescient and prophetical of the future despite living almost a century ago.

“Should the British go any further in support of the Zionists, Lawrence warned, it could quickly bring about the ruin of the Arab nationalist movement – or at least its end in any way beneficial to the Allies. With his long experience in the region, he dismissed the sunny vision of a man like Mark Sykes and his imagining of a Jewish nation gradually forming in the face of grudging Arab acceptance; in one of Lawrence’s most prescient comments, he allowed that “if a Jewish state is to be created in Palestine, it will have to be done by force of arms and maintained by force of arms amid an overwhelmingly hostile population.”

Even though this is the story of T.E. Lawrence, it is far from being his book of praises where Anderson constantly questioned Lawrence’s account of events narrated in his autobiography “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” Calling it the “Lawrence myth,” the author was keenly aware of the difficulties in extracting the full truth or ‘or even to isolate which facet of the myth is most credible’ in which his book was built upon.

Yet amidst the half-truths, Anderson beautifully and succinctly summarized Lawrence’s involvement in the war:

“As Lawrence himself had been trying to tell the world for many years, the blue-eyed “warrior of the desert” had passed from the scene long before, lost to the first great cataclysm of the twentieth century.”

“Lawrence in Arabia” was a tough nut to get through with its endless battlefield scenes and political maneuvering, but it has made its way into my best reads of 2014.

P.S. Scott Anderson wrote this piece for the Smithsonian magazine which provides a mini summary of his book. Read HERE
P.P.S 40 maps by Vox to help you visualize border transformations in the Middle East through the years. Read HERE
P.P.P.S Great article and photos from the National Geographic magazine about the Hejaz desert that Lawrence once traveled across. Read HERE

4 thoughts on “Book review: Lawrence in Arabia

  1. If you’re interested in Lawrence, a good book about him is that written by Robert Graves (who was Lawrence’s friend but also a tremendous writer). Another good book is A Prince of Our Disorder by John E. Mack. Seven Pillars of Wisdom is one of the most amazing books ever written (IMO) but a hard thing to push through. Lawrence was just a man and I think that comes through very clearly in his own account. Lowell Thomas created the myth and it’s one of the first examples of “the myth of personality” promulgated with film. Reading Thomas’ With Lawrence in Arabia is fun.

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